Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

A Lesson for Young Journalists, Courtesy of Justice Kennedy

A high school newspaper in Manhattan recently added a new and prestigious editor to its staff: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.  Adam Liptak of the New York Times reports:

It turns out that Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, widely regarded as one of the court’s most vigilant defenders of First Amendment values, had provided the newspaper, The Daltonian, with a lesson about journalistic independence. Justice Kennedy’s office had insisted on approving any article about a talk he gave to an assembly of Dalton high school students on Oct. 28.

Kathleen Arberg, the court’s public information officer, said Justice Kennedy’s office had made the request to make sure the quotations attributed to him were accurate.

The justice’s office received a draft of the proposed article on Monday and returned it to the newspaper the same day with “a couple of minor tweaks,” Ms. Arberg said. Quotations were “tidied up” to better reflect the meaning the justice had intended to convey, she said.

I’m all for being tidy – and, for all his faults, Kennedy has indeed been friendly to the First Amendment (if not to student speech rights in the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case, Morse v. Frederick) – but public figures don’t usually get to change a story to “better reflect” the intent of their words.

…Frank D. LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, questioned the school’s approach. “Obviously, in the professional world, it would be a nonstarter if a source demanded prior approval of coverage of a speech,” he said. Even at a high school publication, Mr. LoMonte said, the request for prepublication review sent the wrong message and failed to appreciate the sophistication of high school seniors.

While this is hardly a major scandal – and it’s not unusual for justices to exclude the press entirely from public appearances – Kennedy’s use of a judicial editor’s pen does support the general feeling that students don’t always get a fair shake when it comes to their constitutional rights. As I said about an unrelated case in which Cato filed a brief last week (quoting the landmark Tinker case), students shouldn’t have to “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech… at the schoolhouse gate” – especially when a man charged with protecting those rights comes to talk to them about the importance of law and liberty.

H/T: Jonathan Blanks

Problems with 911

Michael Crowley, senior editor at The New Republic, recounts some nightmare episodes with the 911 Emergency Response System in the current issue of Reader’s Digest.  Here’s an excerpt:

If there’s one thing we think we can count on, it’s that a frantic call to 911 will bring a swift and effective response.  Government’s first priority, after all, is protecting its citizens.  But a spate of recent cases reveal shocking flaws in our national emergency response system–at a cost measured in lives.

One of those cases involved a young college student at the University of Wisconsin.  She dialed 911 and then hung up without saying anything.  Before the line was disconnected, however, there were screams and sounds of a struggle caught on tape.  The operator claims she could hear no noise–so she did not dispatch the police or try to call back.  Later that day, the college student, Brittany Zimmerman, was found beaten to death in her apartment.  An audio recording of some of the 911 nightmares can be found here.

Michael Crowley stresses the need for better trained operators and perhaps penalties for the people who tie up the lines with frivolous calls.  That’s all well and good, but more importantly, we must all acknowledge the limits of the 911 system and take responsibility for our own safety.  As the libertarian sheriff, Bill Masters, points out “If you rely on the government for protection, you are going to be at least disappointed and at worst injured or killed.”

For related Cato work, go here.

Update: New Jersey State Police are reviewing how a recent 911 call was handled. A Catholic priest called 911 as he came under criminal attack in his church.

Who Reads the Readers?

This is a reminder, citizen: Only cranks worry about vastly increased governmental power to gather transactional data about Americans’ online behavior. Why, just last week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) informed us that there has not been any “demonstrated or recent abuse” of such authority by means of National Security Letters, which permit the FBI to obtain many telecommunications records without court order. I mean, the last Inspector General report finding widespread and systemic abuse of those came out, like, over a year ago! And as defenders of expanded NSL powers often remind us, similar records can often be obtained by grand jury subpoena.

Subpoenas like, for instance, the one issued last year seeking the complete traffic logs of the left-wing site Indymedia for a particular day. According to tech journo Declan McCullah:

It instructed [System administrator Kristina] Clair to “include IP addresses, times, and any other identifying information,” including e-mail addresses, physical addresses, registered accounts, and Indymedia readers’ Social Security Numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and so on.

The sweeping request came with a gag order prohibiting Clair from talking about it. (As a constitutional matter, courts have found that recipients of such orders must at least be allowed to discuss them with attorneys in order to seek advise about their legality, but the subpoena contained no notice of that fact.) Justice Department officials tell McCullagh that the request was never reviewed directly by the Attorney General, as is normally required when information is sought from a press organization. Clair did tell attorneys at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and  when they wrote to U.S. Attorney Timothy Morrison questioning the propriety of the request, it was promptly withdrawn. EFF’s Kevin Bankston explains the legal problems with the subpoena at length.

Perhaps ironically, the targeting of Indymedia, which is about as far left as news sites get, may finally hep the populist right to the perils of the burgeoning surveillance state. It seems to have piqued Glenn Beck’s interest, and McCullagh went on Lou Dobbs’ show to talk about the story. Thus far, the approved conservative position appears to have been that Barack Obama is some kind of ruthless Stalinist with a secret plan to turn the United States into a massive gulag—but under no circumstances should there be any additional checks on his administration’s domestic spying powers.  This always struck me as both incoherent and a tragic waste of paranoia. Now that we’ve had a rather public reminder that such powers can be used to compile databases of people with politically unorthodox browsing habits, perhaps Beck—who seems to be something of an amateur historian—will take some time to delve into the story of COINTELPRO and other related projects our intelligence community busied itself with before we established an architecture of surveillance oversight in the late ’70s.

You know, the one we’ve spent the past eight years dismantling.

Prosecutorial Immunity

Last week the Supreme Court heard the case of Pottawattamie v. McGhee. The gist is whether prosecutors who fabricate evidence against persons accused of crime can be sued and held liable for money damages, or whether they are immune from suit.  The Crime & Federalism blog reports on the back-and-forth at oral argument in a post entitled “Prosecutors should feel the chill.”

Cato filed an amicus brief in the case.  A ruling is expected by the Supreme Court by June.

The Search for Answers in Fort Hood

The country is unpacking the recent shooting at Fort Hood and analyzing the perpetrator intensely. Along with natural shock and curiosity, a principle reason for doing so is to discover what can prevent incidents like this in the future.

When faced with any risk, including rampaging gunmen, there are four options:

  • Prevention—the alteration of the target or its circumstances to diminish the risk of the bad thing happening.
  • Interdiction—any confrontation with, or influence exerted on, an attacker to eliminate or limit its movement toward causing harm.
  • Mitigation—preparation so that, in the event of the bad thing happening, its consequences are reduced.
  • Acceptance—a rational alternative often chosen when the threat has low probability, low consequence, or both.

(There is much more to risk management, of course. This handy simplification is taken from the DHS Privacy Committee’s “framework” document.)

Taking the facts as they appear now, what lessons can we take from Fort Hood that will help protect military forces and facilities, and the country in general? Let’s go through some of them option-by-option:

Prevention: What circumstances at Fort Hood and elsewhere could be altered to prevent this ever happening again? An obvious one is gun control—if there were no guns, there could be no shooting. But this prescription is complicated by the intrusions on individual rights required to implement it. Depriving citizens of arms directly violates the Second Amendment, and effectively enforcing a gun control regime would almost certainly violate the Fourth.

Removing guns from specific locations might be more palatable and achievable, but gun rampages do not restrict themselves to restricted areas, and widespread possession of guns by law-abiding citizens is an important form of interdiction. Indeed, appropriate gun violence was the interdiction that ultimately stopped further bloodshed.

Interdiction: What steps can be taken against attackers to limit their progress toward causing harm? This is a confounding option because learning what this attack looked like as an embryo won’t tell us what the next one will look like.

Thousands of people are like Nidal Hasan in one respect or another, but they will never commit any attack. There are thousands of people with turmoil or mental illness similar to his, for example. There are thousands of military servicemembers with doubts about U.S. policies. There are thousands of Muslims in the military (whose contributions are highly valuable). There are thousands of people who have investigated or sought contact with Al Qaeda.

If the conclusion from Fort Hood were that all people who share certain traits should be investigated/interdicted, this would violate fundamental rights and values while it wasted investigators’ time: Who is troubled enough in their minds, doubtful enough of U.S. foreign policy, etc. Whose contacts with Al Qaeda or jihadi Web sites indicate a desire to perpetrate bad acts and not curiosity or enmity?

Sending investigators into this quagmire would only work as a salve until some future rampage arose from another unique set of circumstances. We would be no safer for having investigated all who were “like” Nidal Hasan in the ways we decide are material.

Mitigation: I have seen no indication that the facilities and staff of Fort Hood were ill-equipped to deal with the results of this violence. There may be marginal ways they could improve—there always are—but medical services can’t be available everywhere always. There is little prescription for change here.

Acceptance: With the confounding difficulty of prevention and interdiction before us, this option rises a little bit in currency. Television news and commentary may make it feel differently to many people, but there is a very low probability of shootings like this happening. The costs of preventing and interdicting such violence is very high. This is a candidate for “acceptance.”

Acceptance is the least “acceptable” option, of course. Nobody thinks it is ‘ok’ for this kind of thing to happen. But like so many tragedies—indeed, part and parcel of tragedy—it is the loss of innocent life for no good reason.

Fort Hood presents the country with a choice: Invest extraordinary efforts in measures that cost a great deal, that invade prized rights, and that don’t work? Or show our sorrow to the families and community of Fort Hood and make peace with the grief and tragedy of this incident.

Taking Land for Public Uselessness

Over at the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney reports that Pfizer is abandoning its New London offices and deciding what to do with the property it gained in the infamous Kelo v. New London land-grab:

The private homes that New London, Conn., took away from Suzette Kelo and her neighbors have been torn down. Their former site is a wasteland of fields of weeds, a monument to the power of eminent domain.

But now Pfizer, the drug company whose neighboring research facility had been the original cause of the homes’ seizure, has just announced that it is closing up shop in New London.

To lure those jobs to New London a decade ago, the local government promised to demolish the older residential neighborhood adjacent to the land Pfizer was buying for next-to-nothing. Suzette Kelo fought the taking to the Supreme Court, and lost. Five justices found this redevelopment met the constitutional hurdle of “public use.”

That this purported “public use” is now exposed as the façade for corporate welfare that it always was is, of course, little comfort to Suzette Kelo and the other homeowners whose land was seized. But hopefully this will be an object lesson for other companies considering eminent domain abuse as a route to acquire land on the cheap – and especially for state and local officials who acquiesce in this type of behavior.

You can read Cato’s amicus brief for the ill-fated case here. Cato also hosted a book forum for the story of Suzette’s struggle, Little Pink House, featuring the author, Jeff Benedict, the attorney who argued the case, the Institute for Justice’s Scott Bullock, and Ms. Kelo herself, here.

HT: Jonathan Blanks

A Preemptive Word on “Lone Wolves”

As Marcy Wheeler notes, the press seem to have settled on the term “lone wolf” to describe Fort Hood gunman Nidal Malik Hasan, which means it’s probably only a matter of time before we encounter a pundit or legislator who is cynical or befuddled enough (or both) to invoke the tragedy in defense of the PATRIOT Act’s constitutionally dubious Lone Wolf provision. (A “matter of time” apparently meaning the time it took me to write that sentence: We have a winner!) Though the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that would renew the measure, their counterparts in the House wisely—though narrowly—voted to permit it to expire last week.

To spare anyone tempted by this argument some embarrassment: The Lone Wolf provision is totally irrelevant to this case. It could not have been used to investigate Hasan, nor would it have been necessary.

The Lone Wolf provision permits the targeting of non-U.S. persons when there is probable cause to believe they’re preparing to engage in acts of international terrorism. Even if we assume the statutory definition of “international terrorism” could be stretched to cover the Fort Hood attack—and perhaps it could—the provision would have been inapplicable to the Virginia–born Hasan.

So were investigators powerless? Of course not. PATRIOT’s Lone Wolf clause relates only to whether the tools available under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act can be invoked. Shooting people, however, is a crime even when committed for reasons having nothing to do with jihad, and the standard for obtaining a warrant—probable cause—is the same. The chief advantage of FISA tools is that they tend to be both highly secret and, in certain respects, broader than criminal investigative tools—features that are vital when dealing with trained terror agents who are working with an international network it’s important not to tip off, but not so much for “lone wolves,” who by definition lack any such network.

In fact, though, even if the most ambitious reforms proposed by Democrats had been in place, PATRIOT powers could have been brought to bear on Hasan had investigators chosen to do so. We are told, for instance, that investigators months ago became aware of Hasan’s efforts to contact al-Qaeda affiliates abroad. That alone would have provided grounds—again, under current law and under the most civil-liberties protective modifications being considered—for the issuance of National Security Letters seeking his financial and telecommunications records.

The truth is that the Lone Wolf provision didn’t help—and couldn’t have helped—stop this “lone wolf.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what additional powers would have been useful here given what it seems investigators already knew. As our recent history makes all too clear, what typically makes the difference between intelligence success and failure is not how much information you can get, at least past a certain point, but knowing what to do with the information you’ve got. But of course, that’s difficult to do, and doesn’t tend to be the kind of thing that can be fixed with a couple crude statutory provision you can brag about in press releases to your constituents.  So pundits and legislators see a delicate information processing system failing to flag the right targets and conclude, every time, that the right solution is more juice! Turn up the voltage! Try that troubleshooting strategy with your laptop sometime and let me know how it works out.